JERUSALEM (AP) — A new documentary has set off an uproar in Israel for its peek into the family life of the country's most reviled prisoner — the man who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin nearly 20 years ago.
Despite an effort by Israel's culture minister to sideline the film, audiences packed a hall this week for back-to-back screenings of "Beyond the Fear." The film explores the thorny drama of a Moscow-born intellectual who married assassin Yigal Amir after he was sentenced to life in prison and, following a court battle for a conjugal visit, gave birth to their son in 2007.
The late filmmaker Herz Frank, who died two years ago, spent about 10 years following Amir's wife, Larisa Trembovler, receiving unprecedented access to her and their son, Yinon. The film paints a non-judgmental portrait of the family, never directly confronting Trembovler over what her husband did, even as she talks of him as a hero. It documents mesmerizing tape recordings of the bedtime stories Amir tells his young son in telephone conversations from his maximum security cell, stories that, critics say, seem to serve as a lesson that his actions were noble.
Israeli filmmakers tend not to shy away from picking at their society's most festering wounds, but painting an open-minded portrait of Amir's family has long been a no-go zone.
"I do think it really is one of the last remaining taboos," said Shmulik Duvdevani, a scholar of Israeli documentary film at Tel Aviv University.
Amir, an ultranationalist law student who objected to Rabin's peace moves with the Palestinians, shot Rabin following a rally in Tel Aviv on Nov. 4, 1995. Now 45 years old, Amir is serving a life sentence in prison.
The firestorm over the film's compassionate look at his family broke out in the lead-up to its Israeli premiere at the prestigious Jerusalem Film Festival.
Rabin's granddaughter called the film a "cynical use of the freedom of expression." Culture Minister Miri Regev threatened to pull funding from the film festival for screening it.
"Can the state stay indifferent to the fact that its budget is funding the Jerusalem festival that will screen a film about the murderer of a prime minister?" Regev said in parliament. "The state does not need to fund a film or a festival that gives it a nice, comfortable platform and perhaps even gives it legitimacy."
The festival selection committee said the film "is not free of problematic moral choices" but that was important to screen since it "stirs sharp debate over the borders of representation in documentary cinema as it touches on one of Israeli society's most painful taboos."
Festival directors refused to remove "Beyond the Fear" from the competition lineup for best documentary, but in a compromise, agreed to screen it at a private venue on the sidelines of the festival at a nearby conference center.
That sparked accusations from Israel's cinema community that the festival had succumbed to government censorship, and there were calls for directors to withdraw their films from the festival. Pressure from an Israeli organization for children's welfare forced the filmmakers to blur Amir's son's face for the film's Israeli screenings to protect him.
Even before the documentary was complete, the filmmakers knew their footage was explosive. The producers kept the project a secret to protect Amir's wife and make sure they would be able to finish. They did not apply to any of the Israeli film funds that finance documentaries, said producer Sergey Tsirkin. In one scene, filmmaker Frank struggles with the question of whether to complete the film at all.
"The story attracted and frightened at the same time," says co-director Maria Kravchenko at the start of the film. She completed the film after Frank's death.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Kravchenko said she did not expect the film to change viewers' minds about Amir and his family. "I just want (viewers) to stop for a moment and think," she said.
The film shies away from interrogative questions for Amir's wife's — Kravchenko said she never discussed Amir's actions with her. Instead, the camera follows Trembovler as she lugs groceries up a staircase alone, sends her son off to school, and drives to the desert prison where her husband is kept in a one-man cell.
She talks about falling in love with Amir, calling him an "idealist" who "sacrificed himself" for the sake of others. She speaks of her concerns about the impact of her marriage on her children from her first husband and whether it was wise to bring into the world a son who must carry the burden of his imprisoned father. The son's circumcision was held on the anniversary of Rabin's assassination.
The film's title references the fears of Amir's family as well as the fears of the filmmakers in telling their story, Kravchenko said.
Amir's bedtime stories to his young son over the telephone, heard in the film, are biblical tales of heroes who persevered with God's help despite the odds. The toddler tells his father that he prayed at the Western Wall, a key Jewish holy site, for the Messiah to come and free Amir from prison. In the film's final scene, the boy covers his eyes and walks backward from the Western Wall, a Jewish tradition.
Meir Schnitzer, an Israeli film critic, called the portrayal of the son irresponsible. "The film follows him as if he is ... a kind of future Messiah who soaks evil into his bloodstream from the day he was born, until the moment he must supposedly complete his father's heinous mission," Schnitzer wrote in the Maariv newspaper.
The opening screening went smoothly, with one lone man holding a small sign in protest. Many in the audience were immigrants from the former Soviet Union. One, Nehama Peretz, said she has befriended Amir's wife and now hosts her and her son at home from time to time.
Sitting in the second to last row, Peretz sighed throughout the film.
"It bothers me that there is silence on this subject. We can't touch the topic," Peretz said. "This film maybe takes us out of our comfortable area ... to see Yigal Amir's family, and to think."
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